Action on period poverty is a bloody good thing

by Suzy Mitchell / 06 September, 2018
Opinion.
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Period poverty is real for many young Kiwi women. Let's do something about it. Photo / Getty Images

Taking action on period poverty is surely a health issue, if not a social one, particularly for young women in more deprived areas throughout New Zealand. 

People don’t like talking about periods. It’s why when you call in sick to work you call it ‘women problems’ even though it feels like a knife is stabbing the insides of your stomach all day, or you wear a cardigan wrapped around your waist when you’re 13 years old because you’re scared your period will show through your 17 layers of clothing, and why television ads selling pads or tampons use blue dye because god forbid you make people uncomfortable. There is such a stigma around periods that causes shame and embarrassment, especially for young people, you would think this monthly cycle wasn’t a naturally occurring body function that was essential for the continued population of Earth.

As natural as it may be, the burden of having a period and the costs that come with it creates a sense of utter unfairness that no one but women can understand. You’ve got the embarrassment, you’ve got the cramps, you’ve got the pain – and you’ve got the bill.

For parents of daughters, you’ve got an even bigger bill. And while the costs of tampons and sanitary pads may seem small to some, for many New Zealand families these essential items can really cause a strain on your weekly or monthly shopping bill.

The key word here is "essential". Sanitary items are essential not only for personal hygiene but also for self-esteem. Sanitary items are not luxury items – you don’t choose to buy tampons each month based on burning desire. It’s not like shaving or contraception; there is no choice here. Well, for most of us anyway.

Some New Zealanders may not know that many Kiwi families choose to discard sanitary items from their trolleys because they simply cannot afford them, and other grocery items take priority. Desperate measures like using rags, socks, or rolled up toilet paper, or reusing pads after drying them out, sound unfathomable – but it happens, often. Schools have reported young girls staying home from school for the week they have their period, because their families can’t afford to provide sanitary products. Needing to take such action surely is a health issue, if not a social one, particularly for young women in more deprived areas throughout New Zealand.  

Read any comments section on a newspaper article on this topic and you’ll find the outcry – “I’d love to see what else is in the trolleys of those women who can’t afford $5 tampons”, “Should men’s shavers be free too”, “Why can’t they use washable pads”, “Why should the government have to pay because they can’t budget”, “Why should the majority of taxpayers - men - pay for products they don’t use”, “They just need to sort out their priorities, quit buying the smokes and the drink”. The lack of understanding of the real kinds of poverty in New Zealand and the lack of empathy is heartbreaking. It says a lot about society that we are quicker to judge than we are to help. And New Zealanders are better than that. New Zealanders should be better than that.

It shouldn’t be a choice between food, or petrol, and personal hygiene products. It’s about dignity – no woman should ever have to roll up bits of paper or socks or rags to deal with their period, and no young person should ever have to stay home from school and jeopardise their education because of something natural that is happening to their bodies.

Lack of access to sanitary products can have a far-reaching effect on young people’s lives. Scotland has just become the first country in the world to introduce free sanitary items for all students.

These products need to be made readily available to those who struggle to pay for them. That’s why St John has teamed up with Dignity NZ.

The initiative will see eight Otago-Southland lower-decile high schools benefit, with the new partnership to help provide sanitary products for about 1700 female students throughout the South Island. We are taking part in a buy one, gift one, programme with bought items going to ambulance stations, and gifted items to the schools. If our station's staff feel they don't have a need for the products, then they are also gifted to local schools or women's refuge.

Our partnership with Dignity NZ is a natural fit with existing St John programmes that aim to create equitable health access and improve health outcomes for young people. The goal of the initiative aligns with our wider community programmes that aim to create community resilience and equitable healthcare, such as our Patient Pathways programme, which enables St John staff to refer patients to a number of other services; our Caring Caller service, which provides regular contact to people who have little or no contact with others due to ill health, immobility, isolation or depression; and our AED in Marae initiative, which saw ten rurally isolated marae across the East Coast of the North Island receive Automated External Defibrillators from St John.

Creating equitable access to healthcare is something that is really important to St John, and should be something that is important to all New Zealanders, particularly in this age of huge wealth inequality across our country.

Being a young girl is hard enough, and if we can help make things easier for those who struggle, we should. Period.


Suzy Mitchell is Community Programmes Manager at St John New Zealand.

You can find out more about what Dignity NZ is hoping to achieve here

You can learn more about St John's community programmes here

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